I know it's hard to believe today, but before he became a limping human interest story, Grant Hill was one of the best basketball players in the world. He was a two-time NCAA champion (at Duke), NBA co-rookie of the year (with Jason Kidd), an Olympic gold medallist (on Dream Team II), a perennial All-Star (for the Detroit Pistons), and a charter member of the "Next Jordan" Club (alongside Harold Minor, Penny Hardaway, Jerry Stackhouse, and whoever else you want to name).
In August of 2000, Hill’s hard work, dedication, and all-around good guyness was rewarded in the form of a 7-year, $93 million contract courtesy of the Orlando Magic. There he would be teamed with up-and-coming superstar Tracy McGrady, and everybody anticipated the Magic becoming a league powerhouse almost overnight.
But as we all know, that didn’t happen. Thanks to a wide variety of debilitating ankle injuries, Hill played in only 200 games (and missed 374) over his seven years with the Magic. The bulk of those games came in the last three years; he played in only 47 games (out of 328) during his first four seasons in Orlando (otherwise known as the "Tracy McGrady is on his own" Era).
The injuries were grueling, and the surgeries were even moreso. In fact, after one surgery in March of 2003, he developed a staph infection and nearly died. As low points go, "almost dead" ranks just slightly ahead of "actually dead."
Hill made a comeback of sorts over the last three years, playing 67 games in 2004-05 (and averaging a surprising 19.7 PPG) and 65 games last season (averaging a solid 14.4 PPG). There were plenty of teary-eyed tributes and inspirational stories about how he bravely fought through terrible adversity to play the game he loves. As moving as those featurettes usually were, it probably should have been pointed out that he wasn't exactly saving kittens from a burning building, or helping old ladies across the street. But whatever.
Despite all the inspiration, I'm sure the Magic organization was glad that Hill's behemoth contract expired this summer. However, I'm also sure they felt as though they deserved first dibs on his continued services, and on the cheap. After all, hadn't they been patient and diligent in his care? They never tried to rush him back, or force him to play through injuries. As far as I'm aware, they never tried to buy him out or ask him to restructure his contract to ease their salary cap burdens (which were significant). Sure, they appealed to the league for injury exceptions, but by all accounts they treated Hill as well as any organization would have, under the circumstances (which were grim).
Hill didn't give the Magic a chance, though. Instead, he immediately bolted for the Phoenix Suns in what we must assume is one last, desperate gamble for a championship. On the one hand, it's hard to begrudge him that opportunity after all he's suffered through. But on the other hand, Hill really should have rewarded some of the loyalty the Magic have shown him over the last seven years. What happened to Mr. Good Guy? I mean, it's hard to argue that he left Detroit for the money back in 2000, and it's even harder to argue that he's leaving the Magic for a shot at glory. You expect that kind of behavior from most NBA players, but Hill was supposed to be above that sort of thing, a character guy, a Sportsmanship Award winner.
Well, the Magic fans are pissed. Just read some of those comments. I haven't seen a fanbase this bitter and potentially dangerous since, well, since the Celtics "lost" the NBA draft. The sense of betrayal is so strong that many of the fans are openly wishing for Hill to break his ankles (among other things). Most of them think he robbed the Magic and gave very little in return, and it's hard to blame them for feeling that way. I mean, you'll notice that Hill never offered to alter his contract in the team's favor, or pull a Derek Fisher and just set them free of it. No, he expected every dime of that $93 million. And then, as soon as he got the chance, he split.
It's a shame. I always had a lot of respect for Grant Hill. And while I understand that the NBA is, unfortunately, an "every man for himself" business, I frankly still feel that he owed the Magic a little better than that.